During the last turbulent presidential election cycle, a clear division grew between those who regard Donald Trump as a solution to the ineffectiveness of the government and those who regard him as a dangerous populist figure that threatens American democracy. This contentious debate played out most visibly in opposing news sources, with conservative news outlets praising his brash political incorrectness and disregard for informal political norms and liberal news outlets dismissing his legitimacy and calling out his un-presidential behavior. While running for president, Trump engaged in an endless feud with unfriendly media and repeatedly flirted with the accusation that the media is an antagonist that is working against him. This feud is continuing into his presidency as Trump has depicted the media as both unreliable and the number one enemy of the people, while depicting himself as the ultimate source of truth and legitimate information. Donald Trump has used his political platform and diehard following to destroy the credibility of the press so that he can easily dismiss any criticisms or opposing truths, as well as erode the press’s ability to act as a political watchdog.
In the past, the First Amendment right to free speech and free press has been held in the highest esteem and garnered the utmost respect from both citizens and political actors. Trump’s hatred and contempt for the media are unwavering, and, through his constant attacks on the media, dismissing unfavorable news stories as fake news has become a terrifying norm in American society. Does Donald Trump’s apparent dismissal of the free press pose a real threat to constitutional guarantees and to American democracy itself? Donald Trump inches closer and closer to eroding the democratic value of free speech and free press with every strike he makes against the media. Trump is invalidating the free press by using his political power to weaken the ability of the press to administer vertical accountability to state actors, and he is turning the media into the enemy of the people, so he can easily dismiss their criticisms with little pushback. His constant anti-free press rhetoric works to achieve the specific goal of decimating the nation’s trust and reliance on the media. Trump’s presidency has marked the beginning of a dangerous path of democratic erosion.
Holding our politicians accountable for their actions is one of the ways in which democratic values have been reinforced in America. A key mechanism through which American citizens can enact vertical accountability is through the free press. The freedom of the press to report on both the good and bad actions of political actors has allowed the media to act as a watchdog and to enforce vertical accountability. The ability of the press to provide the public factual information is a necessary part of a constrained democracy. Americans rely upon the free press to provide accurate and reliable information about the actions of political actors and institutions. This function is vital in making sure that all citizens are accurately informed on what our elected officials are using their powers to do in order for citizens to question and demand justification for all changes. Ellen Lust defines vertical accountability as accountability that is “exercised by non-state actors (citizens, civil associations, the media) on state actors (Lust, 2015, pg. 3).”Eroding the strength and ability of non-state actors, particularly the media, to hold state actors accountable for their actions is a detrimental step toward democratic backsliding. Slowly, through repeated jabs at the media, Trump has painted the media as unreliable and planted the seed of doubt about the media’s competency in the minds of many Americans. This new image of the media has made a once respected part of democracy into a weary and dubious source of information. By deliberately wearing down our confidence in the media’s ability to inform us, Trump has weakened one of the most decisive links between American citizens and the government. If too many citizens start to believe that all negative news about Trump is fake news, Trump will be free to embark upon an almost unconstrained and unchecked course of action.
Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of possible authoritarian behaviors in their book “How Democracies Die.” One indicator they point to is a “readiness to curtail civil liberties of rivals and critics (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018, pg. 64).” They continue on to describe ways in which Donald Trump has embodied this authoritarian behavior through his verbal attacks of the media and his actual threats against journalists that he claims are reporting fake news about him. On more than one occasion, Trump has deemed the media “the enemy of the people” and casually made comments about how he will take government actions against journalists and media groups. He regularly depicts multiple media outlets as the opposition and argues that his rivals use the media to try and hinder his presidency and squash the conservative agenda. Trump’s anti-free press campaign hit an unnerving high in late-July when he told attendees of a VFM conference in Kansas City to “Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news… what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”This statement embodies everything that Trump thinks about and promotes about the media – his blatant disregard for the media’s impartial reporting, his position as the only truth-teller, and his dismissal of ‘alternative’ facts that do not support him. This kind of behavior has become so normalized in American society that when the President literally makes Orwellian-like statements, it goes almost completely unnoticed. By slowly eroding the legitimacy of his opponents and the media, Donald Trump has made constitutional rights a joke. Not only are his comments and behaviors un-presidential, they are also a direct threat to democratic values.
Donald Trump is eroding the free press to the point where it cannot perform its vital role in protecting democracy. With weakened media, we lose a vital watchdog that provides us with a vehicle for holding our elected officials accountable. As Ellen Lust points out, a lack of accountability is a sign of democratic backsliding. Trump’s readiness to curtail civil liberties of rivalsand his progress toward dismantling America’s confidence in the media’s role in accountability represents his authoritarian rampage and antidemocratic values. Although the effects of Donald Trump’s actions may be subtle and not yet fully formed, it is evident that his flagrant ignorance of democratic norms and practices pose a threat to American democracy. Without a strong news media presence, American democracy is in great peril.